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Tea Cozies, Tweed, and Murder Most Foul: An Advance Review of "Marple" on PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery"

The sunshine might be more intense than ever this summer, but it's also the perfect time to curl up with a good mystery, or four in this case.

This weekend, PBS' Masterpiece Mystery launches the first of four fantastic new Miss Marple feature-length mysteries, based on the spinster detective character created by Agatha Christie.

Stepping into the role for the first time is the superlative Julia McKenzie (Cranford), who replaces Geraldine McEwan as the titular sleuth following McEwan's retirement after the third season of Marple, which airs in the UK on ITV.

McKenzie is pitch perfect as the perspicacious Jane Marple; she might look like an elderly spinster but her tweed suits and constant knitting belie the keen mind of a true detective in every sense of the word. The four installments presented here--"A Pocket Full of Rye," "Murder is Easy," "They Do It With Mirrors," and "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?"--might seem like tea cozy mysteries but the crimes they depict are anything but civil, resulting in countless poisonings, stabbings, and strangulations. Yes, the tea might always be freshly brewed here, but the body count is climbing just the same.

The four Marple mysteries airing over the next four Sundays represent a virtual Who's Who among British television actors. Every episode is positively overflowing with recognizable faces. The first installment alone ("A Pocket Full of Rye") features Matthew Macfadyen (Spooks, Little Dorrit), Rupert Graves (V for Vendetta), Liz White (Life on Mars), Lucy Cohu (Torchwood: Children of Earth), Kenneth Cranham (Valkyrie), Anna Madeley (Brideshead Revisited), the late Wendy Richard (EastEnders), and a slew of others.

Subsequent episodes feature Shirley Henderson (Harry Potter), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Last Enemy), Lyndsey Marshal (Rome), Hugo Speer (Echo Beach), Anna Chancellor (Suburban Shootout), Jemma Redgrave (Bramwell), David Haig (The 39 Steps), Russell Tovey (Being Human), Natalie Dormer (The Tudors), Sean Biggerstaff (Cashback), Hannah Murray (Skins), Richard Briers (Monarch of the Glen), Georgia Moffett (Doctor Who), Rafe Spall (A Room with a View), Joan Collins (Footballers' Wives), Brian Cox (Kings), Nigel Terry (Spooks), and Penelope Wilton (Doctor Who).

Whew.

As for the mysteries themselves, they are engrossing, gripping affairs where nothing is typically as it seems. Unlike Agatha Christie's professional sleuth Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple often stumbles into murder most unwittingly and isn't the person every typically turns to in order to solve a real stumper of a crime. But that's Marple's greatest strength, really: that by appearing to be nothing more than a harmless old woman asking questions, she's often able to draw out answers that the police wouldn't be able to. After all, she hardly seems a threat and her request to enter your confidence seems innocent enough. But nothing escapes Marple's keen gaze: a look, a smudge on a will, a newspaper in a train carriage. Poirot might be the professional, but our Miss Marple is always at work.

The four installments--directed by Charles Palmer, Hettie Macdonald, Nicholas Renton, and Andy Wilson respectively--are beautifully shot and the action moves at a quick clip as the bodies start piling up. McKenzie's performance is enchantingly nuanced: her subtle interrogations, raised eyebrows, and looks of concern add up to a brilliant portrayal of a woman still very much in her prime.

One interesting footnote: the final installment, "Why Didn't They Ask Evans," is based on an Agatha Christie novel but it didn't actually feature Jane Marple; instead it focused on a pair of amateur sleuths, Bobby Attfield and Frankie Derwent (portrayed by Sean Biggerstaff and Georgia Moffett here), who team up to solve a mystery when a dying man issues a series of enigmatic last words. Screenwriter Patrick Barlow injects Marple into the plot, giving her not only the climactic scene in which she unmasks the killer but also allows her to gently guide these sleuths not only through the mystery but also to coupledom.

It's a happy ending to Six by Agatha, which PBS calls "a festival of murder" scripted with wit and insight by the grand dame of crime herself Agatha Christie. If you're looking for rain-slicked mansions by night, mysterious deaths of all kinds, and, yes, a lot of tea sipped out of bone china, Marple is very much the series for you.

After all, there are far worse ways to spend a hot summer's eve than with the murder, mayhem, and mystery of this magnificent Miss Marple.

Masterpiece Mystery's Miss Marple begins Sunday, July 5th at 9 pm ET/PT. Check your local listings for details.

Comments

Bella Spruce said…
I can't believe the excellent cast they put together for these Miss Marple specials. Amazing! I will definitely be tuning in (with a cup of tea in hand, of course).
Charlotte said…
Thanks for the great review, Jace. I am a huge Mystery fan and am looking forward to this!
Sue said…
Just watched the 1st Miss Marple, and I loved it! This is what mystery tv is all about - quick wit, murder, family secrets, etc.

Although I tuned in to see Matthew Macfadyen as Inspector Neele, I definitely will be watching the rest of the series. So many brilliant actors from British tv and film have been cast in each episode.

Finally, something decent to watch on a Sunday night (for the next 3 weeks at least).

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